In the 1980s, heavy metal was dangerous. Hard rock’s subgenre became a societal scapegoat, blamed for corrupting young people’s minds and inciting deaths. Bands went to court and even the Senate to defend lyrics about Satanism, violence, drugs and beastly sex. Millennials might find this quaint or laughable, which is why the guys in Hell Kross created The People vs. Hell Kross, a comedic rock opera that summons the dark forces of metal, back when it was equal parts evil and entertaining, misogynistic and stupid.
Rewind to 1986: The parents of John McCollum hold Ozzy Osbourne responsible for their son’s suicide and sue the singer. In 1985, Raymond Belknap and James Vance attempt suicide after listening to Judas Priest; Belknap dies instantly and Vance a few years later. Their parents sue the bands, accusing them of planting subliminal messages in their music. In both cases, the artists are found innocent.
That same year, a group of Washington, D.C., moms, including Tipper Gore, wife of future vice president and global warming crusader Al Gore, form the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). They want to clamp down on obscene music and compile the “Filthy 15,” a list that includes Madonna, Prince, Cyndi Lauper, Judas Priest, Twisted Sister, W.A.S.P., Vanity and Sheena Easton songs, namely the latter's Prince-penned ode to vagina, “Sugar Walls.”
In a Senate hearing, Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, Frank Zappa and John Denver blast their crusade; Zappa famously calls it the equivalent of “treating dandruff by decapitation.”
Ultimately, record labels slapped Parental Advisory stickers on albums — and Vanity’s Denise Matthews and W.A.S.P. frontman Blackie Lawless went on to become born-again Christians. God worked in mysterious ways.
Ranging in ages from 29 to 32, Grady Welch, Jason Kaye, Evan Watkins and Matt Hunter are too young to remember metal’s Satanic Panic. But the four found the period so ripe for parody that they wrote The People vs. Hell Kross, which they’ve performed at this year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival and at various clubs, including Hollywood’s Three Clubs, where they currently have a residency.
“The Judas Priest case was hysterical,” guitarist Kaye says. “You have a metal band on trial and they’re clearly hungover. And you have the U.S. government trying to tell other bands what they can and can’t say. I feel like that was the last time something like that happened.”
“Because we grew up during grunge, those characters are mythic to us,” singer Welch adds. “It’s a timeless story that we can put our own spin on. It’s a fresh look from a different generation.”
Directed by Kevin Stafford, the comedians play British metal musicians accused of “sonic manslaughter” in Florida in 1989 after a teen fan kills his girlfriend and then himself. They wear cheap wigs and bulges of varying sizes, and make records with names like C.H.O.A.D.
“It’s infantilely perverted,” says Welch of the album’s title.
Their characters are composites of rock gods like Ozzy, Lemmy and, of course, a little Spinal Tap: dimwitted, chauvinistic and, in the case of Kaye’s, completely unintelligible.
The trial’s uptight prosecutor, played by Madeline Wager, wants the group to fry. But Hell Kross, with help from their shady lawyer, played by Nick Gligor, insist their songs, which they sing throughout the show, aren’t lewd or dangerous but socially conscious — even pro-feminist — including “Put My Respect Inside You,” a hilarious nod to AC/DC’s “Let Me Put My Love Into You.” (“You’re smart and strong and get what you demand/I’ll take that ring off my cock and make it a wedding band.”)
“The joke is that you can write a song about respecting women but make the song so disrespectful that it negates what you’re trying to say,” guitarist Watkins says. “The music is blatantly sexual and juvenile.”
The judge, played by Kash Abdulmalik, presides over the case, but it’s up to the audience, who are served fake jury summonses, to decide the fate of Hell Kross, including fifth member and guitarist Cody Elliott.
At a time of heightened political correctness, the actors know that a musical spoof about censorship, Christianity, sexism and gun violence that took place 30 years ago might be misinterpreted today, even if it makes good satire.
“Absurdity is great for comedy,” Watkins says. “The fact that this is based on truth elevates it. We just lifted the idea and made it more ridiculous. But we would never wanna put out something and have it be an anthem for people’s stupidity without them understanding the irony.”
The four trained at UCB, Second City, iO and the Groundlings and met while appearing in various improv and sketch groups. They’re self-taught musicians, with the exception of Kaye, who has a degree in music composition from UC Santa Barbra. (Kaye even won the first season of Dana Carvey and Freddie Prinze Jr.’s TV game show, First Impressions.) In 2016, they formed Hell Kross as an original metal band, giving it the obligatory sinister-sounding name. They also play covers, including hard-rock versions of Britney Spears and Michael Jackson songs.
“We were playing for the fun,” Hunter recalls. “And then the election happened. So we pumped out a concept record.”
The band aren’t mocking just Reagan-era conservatism but today’s symbol of evil. Released last year, Trumpocalypse is music mixed with comedy bits about the KKK, alt-right and immigrants. On the album, Welch, Kaye, Watkins and Hunter play the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who are fired by Lucifer — voiced by none other than The Kids in the Hall’s Kevin McDonald — and forced to go to Earth, where they overthrow a tyrannical leader in order to prevent the end of the world.
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“Have you been outside today?/It’s so beautiful and white/Everyone is just the same, everything is right,” the band sings on “Hail to the Leader.”
“The ’80s was the time of the Moral Majority,” Welch says. “The rise of fundamentalist Christianity. It’s come back again. It’s a cyclical thing. But we’re at an age where we can express ourselves.”
“Trump is too dumb to be the face of evil,” adds Hunter. “He’s the ass of evil.”
The People vs. Hell Kross plays Nov. 16 and Dec. 5 at Three Clubs, 1123 Vine St., Hollywood; (323) 462-6441, threeclubs.com. Buy tickets here.